Peter Hain attempts to force guarantee of frictionless Border

Belfast Agreement architect tables Brexit Bill Amendment amid row over Boris Johnson remarks

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson has suggested a system similar to London's congestion charge zone could be implemented on the Irish border post-Brexit. Video: BBC

 

One of the architects of the Belfast Agreement has tabled an Amendment to the Brexit Bill to force the British government to guarantee in law a frictionless Irish Border, saying he fears Theresa May’s administration “has no real solution” to the problem.

Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland secretary who was instrumental to the peace accord, said when asked why he tabled the Amendment: “I’ve become increasingly concerned, as former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, that the government has no real solution to the Border problem. There is an unwillingness at this very late stage to work out how to resolve this.”

Mr Hain said he no longer believed the Conservatives were an “honest broker” in the effort to keep the Belfast Agreement afloat in the same way that former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair did.

The Amendment says the Brexit Bill should not “breach the obligations” of the agreement nor “create hard Border arrangements” between the two states on the island of Ireland.

It is also seeks an assurance that nothing will “diminish the alignment” between the rules of the EU internal market and customs union as exercised in Ireland, “so far as they support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Belfast Agreement”.

The Amendment has been tabled by Hain, now a Labour peer, and three others: the Conservative peer and former pensions minister Ros Altman, the former head of the civil service Bob Kerslake, and the Liberal Democrat peer Alison Suttie.

The text forming the legally binding framework for an EU withdrawal agreement will be released to the Irish Government on Wednesday morning.

Mr Hain said the agreement in December that enough progress had been made by the British government on the first phase of Brexit talks was “a manoeuvre to get them to the next stage of talks, rather than an iron commitment”, said Mr Hain.

Sources close to the Irish Government say there is ongoing concern that the British are not delivering on their commitment to translate their December pledge on the Border into legally binding text.

Downing Street denial

Meanwhile, Downing Street has insisted that British foreign secretary Boris Johnson was not offering a “technical solution” to the thorny question of the Irish Border when he compared it to the London congestion charge, after the comments caused outrage.

“I thought the foreign secretary was making a comparison to demonstrate our overall approach,” Theresa May’s spokesman said, “and that is that 110,000 people crossing the Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland annually will continue living their lives as before, travelling freely. Just as Londoners travel across boroughs each day.”

Mr Johnson had dismissed concerns that leaving the European customs union could lead to a hard Border, saying that travel between the Republic and North would be like crossing London’s boroughs.

The former London mayor made a reference to congestion charges for drivers in the city, which do not require checks on the road, during a discussion on the potential impact of Brexit.

“We think that we can have very efficient facilitation systems to make sure that there’s no need for a hard Border, [or] excessive checks at the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“There’s no border between Islington or Camden and Westminster, there’s no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever.”

Mr Johnson said he was making “a very relevant comparison” because there was “all sorts of scope for pre-booking, electronic checks, all sorts of things that you can do to obviate the need for a hard Border to allow us to come out of the customs union, take back control of our trade policy and do trade deals”.

He said the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) business lobby group and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were “wrong” to back a customs union with Brussels, as it would leave Britain a “colony” of the EU in a situation that would be the “worst of all worlds”.

“You can’t suck and blow at once, as they say, we’re going to have to come out of the customs union in order to be able to do free trade deals,” he said.

‘Packet of crisps’

A call by Mr Johnson’s Conservative colleague Liam Fox for Britain to leave the customs union to strike free trade deals with countries outside the EU has been described by a former top civil servant at his department as like “giving up a three-course meal for the promise of a packet of crisps”.

Martin Donnelly, who left his role at the department for international trade last year, said 60 per cent of UK trade is either with the EU or the countries it has trade agreements with, and that any divergence from Brussels rules would deal a blow to British services which would not be compensated for through deals with nations like the US.

“You’re giving up a three-course meal, which is the depth and intensity of our trade relationships across the European Union and partners now, for the promise of a packet of crisps in the future if we manage to do trade deals outside the European Union which aren’t going to compensate for what we’re giving up.

“You just have to look at the arithmetic — it doesn’t add up I’m afraid.”

The foreign secretary said he disagreed “very strongly” with Mr Donnelly “of the Brussels commission”, arguing that there is an “insatiable” market for UK services outside the EU.

He rejected reports that the EU is set to demand the European Court of Justice is the ultimate arbiter in treaty-related disputes as it would not amount to “taking back control”.

Mr Johnson suggested he was growing weary of talking about Brexit, despite leading the Vote Leave campaign in 2016’s referendum.

“I think there’s a very good deal to be done; one day we’ll be sitting here not talking about Brexit, it’s going to be fantastic, but one day we will be able to do a deal I think that reflects what the prime minister set out at Lancaster House and Florence and elsewhere, around which the whole cabinet united last week.”

‘Other planet’

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he would like to educate Mr Johnson about Border issues.

“When Boris Johnson decides to come down from the other planet that he clearly inhabits, he should visit the Irish Border and see the scale of the challenge we’re facing with his own eyes before making further pronouncements,” he said.

The SDLP said it sent a memo to the foreign office detailing the difficulties with a hard Border and the realities faced by people, businesses and communities. “Trivialising the very serious concerns relating to Ireland displays a dangerous ignorance that must be challenged,” Mr Eastwood said.

Sinn Féin’s Brexit spokesman David Cullinane TD said Mr Johnson’s intervention was “silly” and “ignorant”.

“It is not surprising that Boris Johnson would make those kind of silly comparisons because he and the hard Brexiteers simply do not want to face up to the reality that any type of Brexit or any type of exit from the customs union and the single market for Britain and the North will mean a hardening of the Border,” he said. “I do not think it will be a surprise for many people that Boris Johnson would make an ignorant observation when it comes to Ireland.” – Guardian service and PA